It’s 34 years since the Stranglers’ debut album – Al Hillier celebrates this great record

Rattus Norvegicus 1V

Alan A Hillier takes us back in time to celebrate the 34th Anniversary of the release of the first and arguably greatest Stranglers album and recounts his psychedelic introduction to it before its release in April 1977.

First Things First!!!

“Didn’t have the money round to buy a Morry thou
Been around and seen a lot to shake me anyhow
Begged and borrowed sometimes I admit I even stole
But the worst crime that I ever did was playing Rock n Roll”

The first verse, of the first song, played on the first occasion that I ever clapped eyes on the Stranglers.
The astounding keyboard introduction to ”˜Grip,’ buzzed and snapped like an electrified chain saw and exploded from Dave Greenfield’s Leslie cabinet and opened proceedings, on Sunday November 14th 1976. Those first few seconds; that fractional lull as Dave played alone, threw me completely because within moments the band had crashed in ensemble. It hit me like a fucking steam train from three feet away”¦”¦Boooooooooooooooooom”¦”¦..

Positioned a few feet away from John’s bass rig I thought my ribs were going to shatter, my head explode, I didn’t even know if I was going to get out of that gaff alive, but at that moment I couldn’t give a fuck.This was it.

The Finchley Boys were born in that moment and were spread out right across the front of the tiny stage and to a man, were going mental right from the off, instinctive, primal, tribal, we had found what we had been looking for.

I had never heard anything like it. Hugh Cornwell spitting and snarling out his vocals and JJ Burnel’s menacing, raucous growling bass thumping through my 18 year old slender body, Jet’s taut drumming as tight as a ducks arse with his mesmeric head movements and blinking eyelids and of course those demonic swirling keyboards launched us all on a long journey that night, a journey that has yet to see it’s conclusion.

Grip kicked it all off but it was only part of a staggering set list which included all of the tracks that would appear on Rattus Norvegicus and ultimately change the course of our young lives.
A few weeks after our first meeting the Stranglers were in TW studios in Fulham Palace Rd and in an incredible five weeks they had recorded the whole album with Martin Rushent at the helm, ably assisted by Alan Winstanley, an incredible feat, an almost unbelievable achievement and I defy anyone to show me an example that can compare. In my opinion, at that time, it was a debut album without comparison and rocked the industry and the great unwashed (like me) to its foundations and set the tone for an incredible year.

John Peel was playing Grip as soon as it was released in February 1977 and I’ll never forget the day that I heard it played for the first time on national radio during the day time.

Working, at this time, was a complete distraction from what we all doing most of the time, but the occasional day here or there kept the wolves from our doors and put some food in our young bellies, but we really didn’t care, there was only one thing we wanted to do, one place we wanted to be and one band we wanted to see and hang out with, The Stranglers. They had instinctively taken to us and we had felt the same way about them; there was an instant bond between us, which, in many ways remains to this day.

Sitting on two short boards sixty feet up on an embryonic scaffold, eating a cheese roll and trying to use my frozen fingers to pour a cup of tea from a battered old flask whilst freezing to death on top of a windswept London landscape in the middle of Kings X, I heard the radio presenter calmly say

“This is ”˜Get a Grip on your self’ ”¦”¦”¦.by the Stranglers”

I was gob smacked”¦”¦”¦”¦”¦This was my band”¦”¦”¦”¦and now they were on national radio and on their way to getting the recognition we all believed they deserved. As the knackered old transistor radio delivered the song to the very best of its ability I shuffled around on that scaffold thinking ”˜nobody here can possibly understand what’s going on in my head at this moment’, so I said nothing. In that minute sitting up on that scaffold something changed dramatically, the band that I had taken to my heart were now becoming famous and I felt such a surge of excitement which is almost indescribable. This was the first Strangler song I ever heard ”˜live’ and now it was the first that I had heard played on the radio and I don’t think it will matter how much time passes, whenever I hear it I still get the same buzz and I always feel like jumping around like the 18 year old loonie that still lives somewhere inside of me.

A Midnight Winters Dream!! !and Temple Balls’

In early 1977 Hugh had a flat right at the top of a Georgian Mansion block in Eggerton Gardens in Knightsbridge (right near Harrods) and occasionally we used to hang out there.

When we arrived, we’d ring on his bell and Hugh would slide open his kitchen window, stick his head out, have a quick look to see who it was then, after we had decided who had drawn the short straw to actually catch them, a monstrous bunch of keys would be launched out of the window and we would let ourselves in.

If we were picking him up first thing in the morning to go somewhere in particular, you could bet a pound to a penny that he’d be eating toast covered in honey”¦he loved the stuff.. This flat was really not that big, but was full of old and somewhat eccentric furniture, which seemed to suit him.

Sometime in very early 1977 I remember turning up at the flat, with my brother Steve, Graham Hayhoe and a few of the other boys in the early evening. Hugh had just ‘cooked’ for this chick, yea, I can see all your faces thinking that’s quite funny but Hugh could whack up the old Spag Bol in order to survive. The chick that Hugh had been entertaining just seemed to disappear when we arrived. I really don’t want to appear like we were all a bunch of chauvinist Pigs, but back then we had a kind of unspoken understanding and that kind of thing just seemed to happen naturally.

The early evening banter had subsided a bit as the evening wore on more than a few ”˜refreshments’ were now being enjoyed. Things were pretty hectic all round in those first couple of months (and indeed thereafter) and the tour schedule was unrelenting, to say the least and it was nice to enjoy these rare moments and just sit around, talking, doing nothing and having a laugh.

It started raining that night at about 10 o’clock and never stopped until the middle of the next day. As the night wore on the rest of the boys had ”˜seemingly’ had enough and drifted off to various corners of the flat to crash for the night, but I had recently discovered my capacity for these ”˜refreshments’ and on this occasion, in these circumstances, sleep was the last thing that was on my greatly expanded young mind.

As things fell completely quiet, sometime just before midnight, Hugh and I began an ”˜in depth’ conversation about all sorts of things which was to last all night. The heavy rain had turned into an incredible thunderstorm that raged unabated outside. It rained that night, all night, like I can never remember it raining before. We stood out on the roof at times and watched ”˜lumps’ of rain fall like wayward golf balls splattering across the rooftop in dramatic sheets and that night lives on in my memory to this very day.

At some point, Hugh disappeared but quickly returned holding a promo copy of the yet to be released Rattus Norvegicus. At that moment none of us had heard the finished album (Not many people had) and he whacked it on the turntable and we listened. We talked about the songs, track by track, we talked about the Finchley Boys, our young lives and experiences, we talked about everything and we played the album over and over, discovering new avenues to go down and new tangents to discuss.

I eventually woke up on the floor, where we had been. Hugh was understandably sparko in an armchair, the rain was still hammering down outside but I decided not to wake him up but just get cracking.
I woke Steve and the boys and when we left quietly at around dawn. I was still so stoned that I was actually tripping and I literally ‘Flew’ back to Finchley in an out of body experience. Steve was driving the old Blue Bedford that would eventually take us up to Swansea and all of the way home I was in the grip of a remarkable and vivid hallucination. Even though I really knew that I was physically sitting in the van, my mind was actually flying high above it and my physical reality fluctuated between the two. It was one of the most amazing experiences that I have ever had and shows how powerful our minds are, especially when they are stimulated. I genuinely could see all the landmarks and major roads from a birds eye view and I really will never ever forget it.

Thirty Four years have vanished in a blink of an eye, but in my opinion Rattus Norvegicus still stands the test of time and is as exciting and vibrant today as it was back then
Happy Birthday

Alan A Hillier
April 17th 2011

No.7

(United Artists Records, 1977)

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12 comments on “It’s 34 years since the Stranglers’ debut album – Al Hillier celebrates this great record”

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  1. april 77,rattus norvegicus it dont get better than that!still the anthem of my youth,and while the bbc,and all of savages cronies still erase it from music history,they forget the masses who purchased it then and still play it now,they cannot be tip-exed away….i,le see you in the sewer darling…

  2. I was 13, at a roman catholic all boys school in Auckland New Zealand when my younger brother Simon gave me a copy of Rattus Norvegicus 1V. It literally changed my life from that point in. The impact on a small bunch of us on the other side of the world was huge. We didn’t want to be like the “cool” kids with their prog rock albums and shiny hair. We had the Stranglers and then went on to discover all the music coming out of England through John Peel on the World Service. Most of us had English dads or granparents, New Zealand was at that time 65% ex pat British and we followed the culture religiously. We formed our own bands, NZ had it’s own punk sub-culture that made life fairly bloody dangerous. Akll I wanted to do was to get to the UK and be in a band over here. I spent 15 years from 1985 to 2000 in bands, I spent the first 3 years going to gigs every weekend catching up on all those lost live years and of course the night I got to see The Stranglers was special, I’ve finally done it I thought, after all these years. I was one happy bunny that night. I now manage an amazing rock band Stolen Peace who have their debut album out this month and are on tour giving people that same feeling. If my bro hadn’t give me Rattus Norvegicus 1V……..who knows?

  3. sneaked in to see them at the newcastle mayfair in 79 I was 12 ..the band and the crowd scared the life out of me…. in a good way.

  4. Just listened to it again for the first time in ages… Brilliant.I remember getting this album for my 16th birthday together with Damned Damned Damned.Both have stood the test of time.

  5. Always thought they were overrated meself, although no more heroes and their cover of walk on by are good tunes.

  6. Alan A Hillier

    Great vids johnny

    I was there at both of them……..Paris Theatre and the Hope and Anchor………just a bit of trivia for you…… The Geezer that is wearing the flight suit who gets in the face of the camera at the Hope.is Artuo Bassick from the Lurkers.Top geezer.he was scared shitless of us………..ask him

    Al

  7. I don’t remember when I bought it. There was no special occasion. It’s quite likely it was some random Saturday afternoon at Bradley’s Records on the top floor of the Arndale which was an old-style independently run but pretty mainstream record shop of the sort that doesn’t really exist much any more, because my first copy carried the ugly corner flash of a mid-price reissue label. Later I found an original version in a second-hand shop and it’s that one that I still own, I think I gave the reissue away.

    Punk had been and gone when I was at an age more interested in Lego and dinosaurs, and within a couple of years that interest turned to pop stars, those weird and wonderful creatures that sang on the telly with their improbable clothes and alien hair. Soon I was buying Smash Hits and the stars would sometime talk about punk and it sounded exciting – all that swearing! I liked a song in the charts called “Skin Deep” by The Stranglers who apparently used to be a punk band, chronology says that was 1984 so I’d have been 12, although I didn’t even have a record player of my own then. That came from a car boot sale in the summer of 85. By the time I first saw The Stranglers live, at Preston Guildhall in March 1987, I knew every last song in the set. So I must have bought it sometime between those dates, probably closer to the start – the album would have been 8 or 9 years old then which felt like a lifetime ago, much more than a 2002 album does now whether I bought it at the time or not.

    What I do remember is how it felt. It felt like the first album I had ever owned that I wouldn’t want to play in front of my parents. Yeah, there was that “fucking” in the middle of “Ugly” that was too prominent to conceal with a cough but it was much, much more than that – the whole album sizzled with the energy of dirty, seedy goings-on that I knew I wouldn’t fully understand until I was a bit older and thus seemed ridiculously exciting. Even that iconic sleeve felt like the doorway into their underworld. Drugs and bad girls (and boys), black leather and sewer rats, I had soon decided (to myself) that The Stranglers were the only true punk band, you’d read about how the late Sid Vicious was a nice sweet boy really and nobody ever said that about the Stranglers. They were nasty and unpleasant and I liked that. There was also J.J. Burnel, of course, whose effect on the raging hormones of a young teenage girl too unfashionable and not pretty enough to have ever had a real boyfriend shouldn’t be underestimated. These days I’d probably cite “Black And White” as my favourite Stranglers album but back then I’m pretty sure it’d have been the debut because it had everything: it wasn’t too long or too short and there wasn’t a track I didn’t like on it; the vivid pictures and intrigue painted in the lyrics, the piledriving bass and those incredible organ sounds; the fact that they had proper tunes.

    Most girls were into George Michael and Curiosity Killed The Cat. Like many teenage outsiders I never set out to be such; I had tried previously wearing fashion clothes and going to the school disco and it didn’t make me any more popular. I hated the plastic soul that passed for pop music and the stupid rules that told you what colours you were meant to be wearing each year. Black went pretty well with everything, so long as the “everything” in question was also black or maybe a bit of white. Most of all I hated pretty much everyone at school, but I didn’t need them, I had The Stranglers. Eventually a new girl turned up at school from down south which is never a recipe for popularity up here and she was into The Jesus And Mary Chain, a relatively new band I had recently discovered, which increased my number of friends… to one. We went to see The Stranglers and my life would never be the same again, but that’s another story. It was “Rattus” that made me want to be there in the first place.

  8. Iceland was always 2 years behind the rest of the world back then in the days before the internet. Punk was something sordid and seedy that the papers made fun of. All my friends listened to prog rock which bored my socks off. I didn’t really like music much to be honest and only listened to David Bowie occasionally.

    In May 1978, I was 15 and something unprecedented happened. The Stranglers announced a concert in Iceland. In those days, no bands ever played there. The last time had been Led Zeppelin in 1969. My uncle handled security for the gig and offered me a free ticket. I wasn’t really interested and said I didn’t have the time.

    That evening I was visiting my grandparents and they played a music video of 5 Minutes on the evening news on TV. I was transfixed, shocked, thrilled and my life and my musical taste was changed forever. I had never heard anything so exciting. I had never imagined that music could be that exciting.

    I called my uncle while the song was still playing and asked if I could reconsider the concert tickets.

    The concert was the most awesome experience of my young life. JJ Burnel was undoubtedly the coolest human being on Earth. I was reeling afterwards and my head pounded like Jet’s kick drum all night.

    The next day I went and bought the first 3 Stranglers albums. Rattus norvegicus was the first record I ever bought. That summer I listened to nothing but those 3 albums and they are still my favourites.

    Later I was privileged to warm up for the Stranglers twice with my band, Fræbbblarnir, in 2004 and 2007. I play bass and JJ is still my biggest inspiration. Recently we recorded our latest album and I borrowed an Ashdown amp and cabinet to get a tone as close to JJ’s as possible. If it’s a bad album, it won’t be the bass sound that is missing.

  9. Hi.My name is Les.I worked with you(Alan Hillier) in the summer at Cromwells Bazaar in North Finchley at the time.I remember one of the 2 bosses called Melvin,a tall lad called Alan on the management and a worker(big lad) called Jeff Elliot(?) with a 125.Another lad had a really serious crash.Wonder if you have any recollection?

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